Is There an Answer for Syria?

Jerome Sessini/Magnum Photos
The front line in the Bustan al-Basha neighborhood of Aleppo, October 2012

The glaring weakness in President Obama’s new Middle East strategy, unveiled on September 24 at the United Nations, is the lack of troops on the ground in Syria. In Iraq, the Kurdish peshmerga, a reformed and remotivated Iraqi army, and the Sunni tribes that played a major part in the success of President Bush’s surge can all be brought into the fight against ISIS. But in Syria—whose disintegration directly threatens the five nations on its borders and indirectly the entire region—there is no one. The Pentagon has made its timetable starkly clear: it has announced that it will take three to five months to identify and vet fighters from the Syrian opposition and another year to train them. What will happen, other than air strikes, in the interim?

No matter how seemingly intractable a problem, reexamining deeply buried core assumptions can sometimes point the way to a solution. The drastic shift in priorities for every country in the Middle East occasioned by the frighteningly rapid rise of ISIS over the past several months may have made it possible to do just that in Syria. Two assumptions that have steered policy from the beginning of the crisis—that the eventual outcome must hinge on whether Bashar al-Assad stays in power or goes, and that the framework of a political agreement must precede any cease-fire—ought now to be rethought.

Notwithstanding the appalling human cost of this war—now standing at 200,000 dead, three million refugees, and six million forced out of their homes—President Obama has clung (and may well have been wise to do so) to what he sees as the lesson of prior American military interventions abroad. He has insisted from the outset that the US not take the relatively easy step of deploying its immense power until there is at least the outline of a political agreement among the warring factions. He couldn’t find one, and neither could anyone else.

In August 2012, not long after former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan stepped down as the international community’s special envoy on Syria, he and I shared a coffee break between airplane flights. Speaking with deep sadness, this consummate international negotiator said he’d never worked harder on a problem with less to show for it. Since then, the widely respected former Algerian foreign minister and international civil servant Lakhdar Brahimi has done the same, with the same result.

What Annan and Brahimi tried to do through a series of meetings in Geneva was to weave together enough threads of political agreement to form the basis for a cease-fire. The problem was that when one side had brought off recent military success, it felt optimistic enough to believe it could fight to victory and was uninterested in making political concessions. Even had the fighters themselves come close to equal levels…

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